The Indonesia experiment

As the world’s largest Muslim country with a population of 255 million, Indonesia’s commitment to Islam’s position as an institution of civil society and to the cause of a pluralist democracy is one of the country’s most important achievements. Described in the Qur’an as ‘Middle Path’ Islam, the Wasatiyah movement was launched in more recent times with the backing of two of the oldest and largest Muslim organizations, the Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912 with a current estimated membership of 29 million, and the Nahdhatul Ulama, founded in 1926 with a membership now estimated at 93 million.

Indonesia adopted the five principles of Pancasila as the basis of its national constitution, and those principles are: adherence to a faith tradition; working toward just and civilized humanism; upholding the unity of Indonesia; commitment to democracy, and promoting social justice for all. Accordingly, religious freedom and the cause of democratic pluralism foster the ideals of Pancasila by deepening Pancasila’s roots in civil society. Wasatiyah as Middle Path Islam has a moderating influence on the country’s political culture and offers a barrier against the resurgence of religious radicalism. On those grounds Wasatiyah is a force for democratic stability and tolerance.

To discuss the Indonesian Experiment, a panel was held on April 18 at Yale University that was moderated by Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity, Professor of History, and the Project Director of Religious Freedom and Society in Africa at the MacMillan Center. (view video) The panel featured Ambassador Jakob Tobing, President of Leimena Institute and former Ambassador to South Korea; Alwi Shihab, President of Indonesia’s Special Envoy for Middle East and OIC Countries; M. Amin Abdullah, Professor of Philosophy and Islamic Studies, State Islamic University, Yogyakarta; Advisor to the Sultan of Yogyakarta; and Azyumardi Azra, CBE, Professor of History, State Islamic University in Jakarta, Special Staff to the Vice President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Sanneh, as a way to introduce the topic, outlined key features of the Indonesian model of Islam and democracy. In doing so, he cited six main themes that would most likely recur during the conversation; these included (1) Indonesia’s commitment to moderate Islam as one of the world’s largest Muslim countries; (2) the concept of Wasatiyyah; (3) flourishing sense of community as the basis for Indonesia’s political system; (4) the importance of religious pluralism for democracy as a whole; (5) Indonesia’s commitment to opposing radical Islam and (6) groups in civil society which can be considered “indispensable to the climate of political moderation and religious tolerance…a climate that inspired Pancasilia.”     

The first panelist to speak was Ambassador Jakob Tobing. Ambassador Tobing played a key role in laying the foundation for Indonesian democracy by leading the rewriting of the Constitution in the Parliament in 1999-2002. Ambassador Tobing pointed to two elements that he believed were critical in the strategic practice that gave rise to Indonesia today. The first factor was Indonesia’s commitment to inclusiveness. “It is essential that everyone,” Ambassador Tobing emphasized, “feels a sense of ownership of the process… [that] even the smallest fractions can contribute as much as possible.” This inclusiveness provided the necessary climate for fostering peace and avoiding attempts to make Indonesia an Islamic state.  The second factor in Indonesia’s strategic practice was the widespread of a Wasatiyyah form of Islam. In praising Indonesia as the prime evidence of Islam’s compatibility with democracy, Ambassador Tobing also credited the constitution. Based on the doctrine of Pancasilia, the constitution promotes Indonesia’s adherence of human rights, including freedom of religion and expression. Lastly, Ambassador Tobing briefly mentioned several challenges – such as poverty - which could potentially lay the foundation for the “penetration of radicals” in the country.

Next Shihab, author of the best-selling book “Inclusive Islam: Toward an open attitude in religion,” and a leading scholar on interfaith relations, spoke. “We are proud,” Shihab emphasized building upon Ambassador Tobing’s talk – “to have an inclusive and open minded Islam.” The first segment of his discussion focused on Indonesia’s potential to serve as a model of pluralism. He praised the character of Indonesians as “non-confrontational … consensus seeking” people as one of the foundations for harmonious living. At the same time, Shihab did not shy away from discussing current rising challenges. He emphasized that the most alarming news, not just for Indonesia but for the rest of the world today, is the increasing presence of radicalism. He called for a systematic and collective approach to address “the increasing penetration of radical and closed minded understanding of Islam, and the exclusive way of interpreting Islam as a whole.” One potential approach, he identified, could be the use of the media to bypass this penetration of radicalism – to “enlighten [citizens] so that they can counter arguments of … exclusive understandings of Islam.”

The third panelist Azra briefly surveyed the historical circumstances that gave rise to Indonesia’s distinctiveness. In discussing “the unintended consequences of democracy” today, Azra also spoke of challenges such as the breakdown of law and order, corruption in the local regions and the rise of religio-political groups that have strong orientation to the Middle East.

The final speaker was Abdullah. In his remarks, Abdullah underscored the claim that “Muslim acceptance of Pancasilia is the root of pluralism in Indonesia.” Without Pancasilia, he argued, there would be no Indonesia. Furthermore, Abdullah highlighted three key features he believed were integral in the Indonesian model of Islam – plurality and inclusiveness, social cohesiveness, and the ability to combine “Islamic belief, Islamic teaching and the common good of the nation state.”

Sanneh concluded the session, noting two lessons he took away from Indonesian Experiment. First, as highlighted by Indonesia’s practice, “the government cannot transcend the society of its jurisdiction.” Pancasilia – which gave birth to the Indonesian constitution and state – reflects the diversity and inclusiveness of the country, which is grounded in civil society. Secondly, it is evident that “Indonesia does not play a statistical game.” Political power is not allocated according to numerical stakes so the Muslim population doesn’t capitalize on its numerical power. As a result, minority groups are never excluded by virtue of their size. Despite its various challenges and the growing concerns of radical ideology penetration, Indonesia remains a prime example in the discussion of religion and democratic pluralism.   


Written by Tsedenya Simmie, Yale College 2019.

Friday, May 19, 2017